The First Step.
“Beginning my studies, the first step pleas’d me so much,
The mere fact, consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step awed me and pleased me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish’d to go on any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.”
Walt Whitman’s voice rings out over the decades, and like all truth, he reaches and touches the thirsty parts that sorely need a little reality tending these days. Then as now, love of nature is the never- ending first step(s). He declares, early on in his poems: “Not finding me…look for me under your bootsoles.”
Whitman seems to have made a ‘sufficient” living on very little money; writing in all its forms was one of the ways in which he didn’t make it. But unlike his family, who worked studiously to accumulate, young Walt seemed to walk away from the day-to-day task driven life; to wander and wonder.
“Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song”
Indeed, Whitman was moved by an abundance of ‘listening’ in his own authentic way. He felt called to serve each day acting from, and in service to, an all-powerful and all-embracing love or “soul”. “Yes, here comes my mistress, the soul.”
“Regarding it all intently a long while, then dismissing it,
I stand in my place, with my own day here.”
In his last weeks and days, the poet lingered with his friend the then famous American artist Thomas Eakins who painted and photographed him on several, fortunate occasions. These remain, as he wished, as part of his legacy.
“Shut not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill’d shelves,
Yet needed most, I bring”…
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it everything”…
The Last Lesson.
In his last days, Walt often pondered his quiet life in disquieting times; the tumultuous civil war that was always at his elbow, the endless days in field hospitals doing rounds to comfort the wounded and dying; the meetings and correspondence with some of the other prominent men of his day: Charles Dickens, William M. Thackeray, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Carlyle, Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Burroughs, Dr. Maurice Bucke, author of ‘Cosmic Consciousness” (whom he visited on his only trip outside the US, to London, Ontario, just a few blocks from where I later lived)
“I am fain to fancy the foundations of quite a lesson learned…after you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on – what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air..the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night. We will begin from these convictions. Literature flies so high..that our notes may seem hardly more than breaths of common air, or draughts of water to drink. But that is part of our lesson.”
On July 20, 1889, his biographer Horace Trauble noted, just as he was leaving to catch the ferry home: “How grand and good” exclaimed Walt, “to have a philosophy that includes all!…It is as though we had got in touch with nature’s profoundest, her largest, her last lesson, what we call mystery.”
So now, let’s return to his song, and pick up right where we left off: “You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.”
Song of Myself (3 & 4)
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.
Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,
Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.
Showing the best and dividing it from the worst age vexes age,
Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself.
Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.
I am satisfied—I see, dance, laugh, sing;
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night, and withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread,
Leaving me baskets cover’d with white towels swelling the house with their plenty,
Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes,
That they turn from gazing after and down the road,
And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent,
Exactly the value of one and exactly the value of two, and which is ahead?
Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.
See more Song of Myself: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45477/song-of-myself-1892-version